Home / News / The rise of the 'nones' — 1 in 5 American adults have no religious affiliation, interest in humanism and atheism explodes
The rise of the 'nones' — 1 in 5 American adults have no religious affiliation, interest in humanism and atheism explodes

The rise of the 'nones' — 1 in 5 American adults have no religious affiliation, interest in humanism and atheism explodes

A new report from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing at a rapid pace. About one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under age 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives. However, many of the country's 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), more than a third classify themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious" (37%), and one in five say they pray every day (21%).

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the "nones" – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one in ten among those who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestant. In multiple surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%. The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, including those who consider themselves born-again or evangelical Protestants as well as those who do not.

This report is based on an analysis of dozens of Pew's surveys conducted in recent years among tens of thousands of respondents. It also includes findings from a new survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center and the PBS television program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," produced by Thirteen for WNET New York. The "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" is also producing a three-part mini-series, "None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated," based in large part on the survey's findings.  It will begin airing nationally on PBS the weekends of October 12, 19 and 26 (check local listings).

The full report is available on the Pew Forum's website.

Religious reactions — report should not be exaggerated.

Quoted by the American Family Association's filtered news network, One News Now, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, said that the Pew survey should not be exaggerated. "The study also shows that most of the religious unaffiliated still believe in God and still pray — and although very few have commented on it at all, it also shows that about the same percentage of Americans are still attending church regularly, close to 40 percent, which remarkably has remained the same across 80 years now," he argued, saying that the Pew survey does not mean necessarily that America is going the way of Europe and deserting religion. "I think the study mostly just illustrates the implosion of denominational loyalties and affiliations, especially among the mainline Protestants, but among Protestants and evangelicals as a whole. Even those who are very devout increasingly don't express any strong loyalty to any particular denomination or tradition."

The same One News Now article quoted Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research, who observed that a large percentage of "nones" are young people. "We've shown studies at LifeWay Research where we've found the number-one correlative factor to students being engaged and remaining engaged in church and ministry and life is having two parents who are married, who go to the same church, and who are engaged in the spiritual formation of their children," he said.

Secular reaction – interest in humanism, atheism growing.

A press release issued by the American Humanists Association  noted that there has been an explosive growth of interest in humanism and atheism:

The rise in religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. is no passing fad, a new report released today has confirmed.

Over 19% of U.S. adults are “nones,” Americans who do not identify with any religion—and that number continues to grow at a rapid pace, according to the Pew Form on Religion and Public Life’s latest report titled “’Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” This number includes more than 13 million atheists and agnostics and nearly 33 million who answered “nothing in particular” when asked for their religious affiliation.

“Millions of Americans are discovering that religion isn’t required in order to lead a moral and purposeful life,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

Traditional religions may be unwittingly accelerating the secularization. Speckhardt explained, “We’re seeing evidence that our numbers are bolstered when there’s religious opposition to progress on issues like same-sex marriage, women’s reproductive freedom, and concern for the environment. Young people especially can’t stomach such backward thinking.”

According to the report, the younger generations are increasingly less religious: 32% of people under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared to 9% of those 65 and older. “College students and people starting families and entering new careers are coming out as non-religious in droves,” remarked Speckhardt. “Saying that you are an atheist no longer carries the stigma that it did in years past. More and more are recognizing that you can be good without a belief in a god.”

The American Humanist Association has seen an explosive growth of interest in humanism and atheism. Over the past decade, the 70-year-old organization has seen its supporter base quadruple to 20,000 members and supporters, with over 80,000 followers on Facebook. The Reason Rally, an event in Washington DC held last March and co-sponsored by the American Humanist Association and other freethought groups, drew 25,000 attendees who consider themselves atheists, humanists, and religiously unaffiliated.

The report’s findings also include:

  • From 2007-2012, the “nones” have risen from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.
  • Eighty-eight percent of the “nones” say they are not looking for a religion.
  • The “nones” are largely Democratic, being 24% of registered voters who vote Democratic or lean that way, the largest block of any “religious” group.
  • 72% of unaffiliated people support abortion rights and 73% support same-sex marriage.

About D. Beeksma

One of the growing crowd of American "nones" herself, Deborah is a prolific writer who finds religion, spirituality and the impact of belief (and non-belief) on culture inspiring, fascinating and at times, disturbing. She hosts the God Discussion show and handles the site's technical work. Her education and background is in business, ecommerce and law.
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